From the rabidness of England’s Northern soul fanatics for Motown 45s to the hoovering up of any and all Blue Note LPs by Japanese jazzbos, it seems as if America’s music is best appreciated by other nationalities. And as Night Dubbin’: A Dubbed Out Collection of ’80s Dance Music makes clear, that trend continues to this day. This three-CD set documents when adventurous NYC DJs and mixers like François Kevorkian, Shep Pettibone, Paul Simpson, John Morales, Tee Scott, Nick Martinelli, and, of course, Larry Levan applied the studio wizardry of Jamaican dub reggae to pop music, creating drastically “altered” versions of the hits—everything from Yaz’s “Situation” and the Clash’s “The Magnificent Seven” to Wham!—so that they might create a more devastating dancefloor weapon, be it at the legendary Paradise Garage or at other Gotham dance clubs of the era.
Compiled by the mustachioed Dimitri From Paris and then further dubbed in the mix by the zonked-out house-music prankster duo of Dan Tyler and Conrad McDonnell (a/k/a the Idjut Boys), Night Dubbin’ casts a new light on those heady days when genre and artist name mattered less than a song’s body-moving powers. The release makes it feel strangely fitting to have a Parisian and two Londoners appreciate this lost American musical form of post-disco/boogie/synthesized dance music, as originally cooked up in the studios of early-’80s New York City. In celebration of this release and Dimitri’s upcoming gig at Love, I convened the comp’s participants for a chat via Skype.
When’s the last time you all were in New York City?
Conrad McDonnell: That would be the last World Cup finals [in 2006].
Dan Tyler: It was great. We finished the day with some French people and Alex from Tokyo in a little Italian restaurant. There was a fair amount of liquor drunk and music poorly put together.
As opposed to London and Paris in the early ’80s, what distinguished NYC at the time?
Dimitri From Paris: As far as I’m concerned, my whole musical influence started from New York. The first time I came here was in 1986. I didn’t go to Paradise Garage—as it closed down sadly a month before—but I experienced Better Days, the Palladium, Area. So, the first time I went to clubs in New York, I realized that, just from the technical point of view, it was another world. It actually sounded good—people were there for the music, they were dancing, there was a whole different vibe. It made sense with the music coming out of there. And it did live up to the New York of my mind. For me, I was a kid in a candy store. There was a real energy you could feel.
Dan: Maybe that’s the ethos of this music—it being drawn from many different sources and put into a melting pot? I think that’s what’s lasted from then till now anyway, the fact that, even though I’ve never been to the Garage, it wasn’t the pounding kick-drum all night. The music would be varied and go different places. That’s what I got about New York from these DJs, the freeness in the music.
Dimitri: I don’t really know what was so special about New York and why we were so influenced by it. It was primarily the music that made us like New York rather than New York make us like the music. We didn’t know anything about the city; we were only getting the music. On record labels, I kept reading François Kevorkian’s name, and every time I listened to his productions, I went, “Wow, this guy is amazing.” And more than anyone else, I would read his name. I had no idea who this guy was other than he had a French-sounding name. I didn’t know he was a DJ. There was no information we could really get. I guess the music was of a quality that really appealed to us. It was diverse and creative. François still deejays like no one else I know. And he’s nearly 60 years old!
Before eBay and Discogs.com, how hard was it to come across these records overseas?
Dimitri: Traveling was a huge chance for us to buy records. Wherever we were, I would wake up early in the morning just to go to record stores. We are really record freaks.
Conrad: The music that was popular in New York was imported, and it was all here secondhand, lots of it. Unfortunately—or fortunately, as the case may be—it seems to be endless.
Did any of Dimitri’s Night Dubbin’ selections surprise you?
Dan: There were tracks we hammered over the years, like Wuf Ticket’s “The Key.”
Conrad: Or Serious Intention’s “You Don’t Know.” I’ve worn out two copies of that record! The RAH Band we didn’t know.
Dan: We were RAH Band virgins.
Dimitri: That’s the beauty of remixes. That’s also why I put Wham! in there, because everyone goes, “It’s impossible. They cannot be good.” RAH Band and Wham! are great examples of how you can turn cheesy pop songs into something that is really groundbreaking.
Let’s talk about dub reggae and how it got infused with New York disco.
Conrad: It’s that element of space—you confuse and juxtapose sounds and genres together, and when it’s fed through delay and reverb, it freaks the music out. And we like the freak, to be honest.
Dan: When you first encounter that kind of music, sonically it had so much more resonance than some of the other stuff that was played beside it, simply because of the space the effects put into it, a drama accentuating various points on the record. Obviously, someone who is the master of that, and as a DJ, is François K.
Dimitri: I would like to add about François that he plays at Cielo every Monday. Every time I go to New York, I make a point to go there and sit down to listen to him. The way he plays is striking. It’s like I’m getting a lecture in music from him. I love it. He’s like one of those old African tribal guys, who passes the history on to the younger kids, orally.
So why revisit this music now?
Dimitri: I felt it was the right moment to show up with these tracks and say, “Listen to this.” Music is always repeating itself, but sometimes you don’t know what it is repeating unless you are a proper nerd. This is something that non-nerds can enjoy.
Dimitri from Paris plays Love June 4